MEME 4.04

In this issue of MEME:


by David S. Bennahum

Bill Joy, Sun Microsystems's President, co-founder, and arch-enemy of the "other Bill" is riffing on a favorite theme: the evil of Bill Gates and Microsoft. "Microsoft maliciously hijacked Java," Joy says, referring to Sun's foiled attempt at creating a way for the same program to run on any computer platform without modification. According to Joy, Microsoft so modified the Windows version of Java that its promise of universality was destroyed. "Microsoft is getting sued because they are not obeying the compatibility requirements," Joys explains, referring to a Sun lawsuit against Microsoft. "Microsoft was malicious," Joy repeats. Then he takes the high-ground, a favorite spot for Sun, a company whose corporate identity vacillates between the mantra "the network is the computer" and as last-defense against Microsoft's plans for world domination. "Microsoft has scared the bejesus out of everybody, and we are the only real alternative," Joy tells me. "Steve Jobs sold out Apple to resuscitate the company"-- an allusion to Microsoft's 1997 investment in Apple -- "We are a total free agent. It gives us an opportunity to do something better."

The something better in question is Jini, the cutely-named follow-up to Sun's 1995 launch of Java. Scheduled for release this fall, Jini, as Joy puts it, is supposed to be "the first software architecture for the coming wave of high-connectivity environments." What this means in plain language is that Jini will let different kinds of devices-- cell phones, laser printers, thermostats, desktop computers, automobiles-- share information by communicating to one another. For instance, a Jini-enabled air-conditioner could be connected to a home computer, and from there to the Internet and your office computer. While away at the office on a torrid summer day, you could control your air- conditioner, telling it to switch on 30 minutes before you head back for home, so you arrive in a cool house without having had to run the unit all day long. Were the air-conditioner to break, it could send a self-diagnostic message to the service company, listing what parts it needs, allowing for quicker, more efficient repair.

The beauty of Jini-- in principle-- is that these devices don't need to be programmed to speak to every kind of possible device on the planet. Instead, much as a fax machine "handshakes" with another machine, figuring out speed settings and image quality, Jini-enabled devices will figure out how they can communicate and what they can communicate. So by plugging in a Jini-enabled cell phone into a Jini-enabled printer, the phone could send your stored address list onto a piece of paper without needing any special one-of-a-kind interface. Jini acts as a match-making service for anything with a computer chip and communications port. Two appliances that want to speak use Jini to look up the right protocol, a translation-table of sorts. Those protocols are written by whoever creates the appliance and can be stored for easy retrieval on the Internet by Sun. Since the protocol is in Jini, the second appliance can understand how to communicate with the first. It's a system not unlike the way Internet Domain Name Servers turn a string of lett